- Recasting the Gaze:Self-perception and Body De(con)struction in Nelly Arcan's "La honte"
THE WORKS OF QUÉBECOIS WRITER Nelly Arcan (pen name for Isabelle Fortier) have steadily captured the interest of readers and literary critics alike since her first controversial novel, Putain, was published by Éditions du Seuil in 2001. The book, which became a worldwide success and projected the author into international stardom, is the blunt autofictional account of Arcan's experience as an escort while she lived in Montreal and pursued a degree in literature and philosophy at the Université du Québec. Contrary to what the title seemingly foretells, the narrative challenges voyeuristic expectations and deflects the potentially prying (male) gaze through a literary discourse that refuses to eroticize the female body and glamorize prostitution. Rather, with an astonishingly high degree of objectivity, Arcan's text probes constructions of femininity in a male-dominated culture where sex is a commodity to discard after consumption. This atypical mémoire candidly reveals the author's obsession with self-judgment and the approval of others, interspersing the narrative with recurring reflections on death, a paradigm of her entire œuvre and a foreboding of her suicide in her Montreal apartment on September 24, 2009.
The female body as represented in Putain and throughout Arcan's œuvre is the subject of a seemingly unresolvable aporia. On the one hand, the author critiques common readings of femininity as adherence to beauty canons imposed by a masculine economy that exploits women's sexuality—big breasts, plump lips, and even surgically enhanced vaginas synecdochally representing the body as sex merchandize. On the other hand, Arcan coopts this phallocratically imposed model of seductiveness and strives to convey a sexually charged image of herself to the public, seemingly submitting her own body to the same cosmetic surgery and procedures (such as breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, and lip filling) that she often vehemently condemns in her writing and public interviews. Arcan's simultaneous endorsement and rejection of patriarchal normative paradigms of female desirability produce a discrepancy between identity and self-perception, which in turn causes the subject to question her identification with the image reflected outside herself, in the mirror as in the media, in the private as in the public sphere. The failure [End Page 126] to achieve cohesion between the self and its representation may be responsible for the psychological conditions that afflicted Arcan throughout her life, which range from anorexia to body dysmorphia to depersonalization and depression. The latter two in particular emerge in Arcan's four-part autofictional short story "La honte," published posthumously in 2011 as part of a collection entitled Burqa de chair.1 The text documents Arcan's continued anguish over her body image while detailing the irreversible progression of a profoundly depressive state of mind that eventually culminated in her suicide.
Almost exactly two years before her death, in September 2007, Arcan was invited to a popular Canadian television show Tout le monde en parle to discuss her most recent publication, À ciel ouvert, the fictional account of a love triangle between a fashion photographer and two women obsessed with plastic surgery who compete for his attention. On the show, Arcan was the only female guest on a panel of men that included famed host Guy Lepage. During the program, instead of being asked about her work, Arcan was subjected to a series of uncomfortable gossip-style questions and sarcastic comments about her life and appearance. The host and his guests pointed out Arcan's preoccupation with her body, accusing her of hypocrisy for denouncing society's fixation with feminine beauty while simultaneously undergoing cosmetic procedures and validating stereotypes of what constitutes women's attractiveness. Furthermore, halfway through the interview, Arcan became the target of sexist observations regarding the low-cut black dress she chose to wear, the focus of the panelists and public directed to her body (particularly her cleavage) while ignoring the content of her book.2 This apparently inconsequential episode became the subject of "La honte," presumably written immediately after the infamous television appearance but formally published and widely circulated only after Arcan's death. The story foregrounds the state of profound psychological...